Growing Up On The Mendocino Coast

by Eugene Scaramella, September 14, 2016

My father Carlo Scaramellla left his family in the tiny town of Delebio, in Northern Italy, to come to Northern California in 1900. He felt that the Catholic Church demanded too much of him in Italy, restricting his ability to work, get ahead, expand and improve his life as an Italian peasant farmer. He left my mother Anna and my two older brothers, Joe and John, behind until he could save enough money for them to join him in America.

For several years he worked the woods in Cleone and loaded lumber boats and saved what he could.

One weekend he went down to load a boat at Little River. It was getting stormy and the captain decided he better get out of there quick so he put out to sea in a hurry without putting anybody ashore. The ship headed down toward San Francisco. The captain finally put my father ashore in a rowboat somewhere near Stewart’s Point. Dad had to walk all the way back to Cleone. It took him a couple of weeks, but part of that time he spent stopping and visiting Italian people along the way, and he probably had a couple of sips of wine.

By 1906 Father had finally saved enough money to arrange for my mother and brothers Joe and John (ages 8 and 7 at the time) to come to California. They took the train from Delebio to Genoa, then a boat to Northern France, and then by ship to New York — steerage all the way across, down in the hold. The conditions were pretty miserable.

They arrived at Ellis Island and hooked up with a friend who spoke English and helped them through the immigration process. They took a train to San Francisco, arriving the night of 17th of April, 1906. That was the day before the big San Francisco earthquake on the 18th. Father had arranged to travel to Point Arena by the steamer Pomo. It was supposed to leave at 10 o’clock the morning after they arrived.

The earthquake hit a little after 5 o’clock in the morning. There was a fire in the hotel where my mother and brothers were staying and everybody had to get out. Mother lost all her belongings, including her laces and other prized family items she brought from Delebio.

Joe and John got the measles and the family was quarantined in a chicken coop in the harbor area for several days. After that Joe and John and my mother were taken in by an Oakland family and in a matter of weeks.

Father stayed in the area making contact with charitable organizations and keeping track of bulletin boards where earthquake refugees posted notices. He finally found his wife and two children after a few weeks and they arranged travel to Point Arena. They took a train to Cloverdale, a horse-drawn stage to Elk and a horse-drawn wagon to Point Arena. My mother was never thrilled about the idea of moving to the United States and after the earthquake experience she hardened in her views and never even tried to learn English.

The family stayed with my mother’s sister (Mrs. Ceceliani) in Point Arena until they found a place to stay. It wasn’t long before Father bought a hotel on credit. It had a saloon at the bottom of a hill on the south end of town.

pointarena1900s

Dad was having problems making payments and he didn’t get along with his saloon partner, but then a big slide destroyed the building the following winter.

My brother Charley was born on April 25, 1907, and I was born on May 30, 1908.

My earliest personal recollections start at Brush Creek near Point Arena, our first home after we moved from the hotel. Father became a tie contractor. He had a contract at Carruther’s Camp on the Garcia River. Our house was a small one-room log cabin with no floor. My mother cooked and did all the washing and cleaning for us and the three or four Italian immigrants Dad hired.

The owner of the lumber company would assign a section of the woods to a tie contractor who would be responsible for cutting down the trees, cutting them into eight foot lengths and splitting them into railroad ties of various sizes, 7x8 or 6x8, or 6x10. They were trimmed by hand with a broad-ax, and hauled to the railroad siding where they were counted and paid for based on the number and quality of ties delivered.

Access to that house was very precarious. There wasn’t any road. You could only get to the house by going up the streambed. It was inaccessible in the winter when it flooded.

Once in 1912 the hired men were teasing me about drinking wine. They offered me 25¢ if I could drink the remainder of the wine in the bottom of a bottle. I thought it was one of those bottles with a fake, push-up bottom. So I drank it all. It turned out to be two or three inches of wine. I promptly walked off the porch and fell into some bushes. All the hired men had a big laugh at that.

Later in 1912 we moved to another tie job in the Twin Bridges area outside of Valley Crossing east of where Sea Ranch headquarters is now.

We lived right on the Gualala River, about a half a mile downstream from Twin Bridges. We had a house and a few acres with horses, chickens, cows, and a garden. My mother and father made cheese and sausage, and butter and they made our soap from the various parts of pigs we killed and butchered. Mother cooked for the family and the hired help.

One of the first things my father did when we moved to a new location was to make a brick oven. He made a floor out of bricks we made out of some kind of clay which we collected. We assembled a dome-shaped oven over the top of the floor out of the bricks. It had a little dent in the back for wood. After eight or ten hours the bricks would heat up enough for baking. Bread was made by working the dough by hand and forming it into loaves and putting it into the oven, usually overnight. That made enough bread to last maybe a week or so. Some of it got pretty hard. It was probably nourishing but it wasn’t very tasty.

My father used to make home-made cheese. We salted it, put it on racks and turned it. My mother washed clothes in a boiler on the stove. It was a lot of work. Of course we didn’t have running water at any of these locations nor did we have an indoor toilet. We used either a “shit pail” or we’d have to go out in the woods wherever we happened to be.

On Sunday afternoons, my brother Charley and I liked to commandeer the handcar on the narrow-gage railroad that was used to haul logs and ties to and from the area where we worked. We’d get it going as fast as we could then jump off just before a sharp turn where we’d bet on whether or not it would jump off the tracks. It didn’t go off that much, but when it did the railmen had to drag it back onto the tracks on Monday morning.

My father had a tendency to make deals after he had a few glasses of wine. The family was expected to make good on those deals and we had to work very hard to get done on time. My father used to say, “Mangiare polenta non parole.” My brother Joe resented that and after about year there, he left home and went to work in North Beach in San Francisco where he later met his beautiful wife Geneva.

John and Charley and I went to school at the Del Mar School. All eight grades were in one room. John graduated there. Charley and I went through the fourth grade. I was five when I started school. They needed me to be the one extra kid to have enough pupils to qualify as a school. We had difficulty with English at that time and our lunches weren’t like the other kids’. All we usually had was some dry bread, dry cheese and salami. Once in a while we had a small bottle of wine. Because of the language problem, we’d eat our lunch in the woods and wouldn’t fraternize with the other students.

In the wintertime when the Gualala River was in flood stage we sometimes would have to take a boat to cross it to go to school and then cross it again when we came back. Each time we had to put the boat in several hundred yards upstream because as we rowed it across it would float down. If we wanted to land at point A we’d set the boat in about 200 yards upstream on the opposite bank and row and then finally get across to Point A. In the evening on the way home we’d reverse the procedure.

In late 1914 the work in the woods dried up and we had no cash income. We had animals, lots of game and fish, and the garden. Of course we needed salt and spices and sugar and things like that which we had to buy on credit at the company store. I don’t know how Father ever paid it off, but he finally did. We did quite a bit of hard work to keep things going.

In 1918 we moved north to Alder Creek near Manchester. It took two days to get up there from Valley Crossing. We had all our belongings in the farm wagon driven by a four-horse team. We put two bales of hay in the back of the wagon and the cattle followed the wagon. We got along fine without getting too many strays. Our loose collection of animals, wagons, horses and people went over the hill, down to where Sea Ranch is now, and on to Highway 1 and on up to Gualala. We stayed there with the owner of what is now the Milano Hotel. An Italian fellow by the name of “Big Burt” Lucanetti lived there. He was friendly with Dad and put us up overnight. We put the cattle in his corral.

The next day we started up the coast and got to my mother’s sister’s small ranch near the intersection of Highway 1 and Mountain View Road. From there we went on to the Alder Creek ranch that we rented for the next five years.

It was another old clapboard house with three rooms, no indoor toilet or running water — as usual. We used cans to get our water from a well a half a mile from the house. There was a separate place with a small spring where we got water for the animals.

“In the fall of 1918 the big flu-influenza epidemic hit the coast. Every day I saw a hearse go by taking people to the cemetery. Fortunately, out of the five of us in the family, Dad was the only one who caught it. He was quite sick but he recovered. It was a very, very serious epidemic.

At the ranch we started out with about 20 cows and eventually built the herd to about 40 head. We’d milk the cows and put what we didn’t drink into a tank. It had a hand-cranked separator. We sold the cream that came out of the top spigot and fed the skim milk that came out of the lower spigot to our pigs. People who drank skim milk in those days were very, very poor. There was kind of a stigma to drinking skim milk. Now it’s all in vogue.

By the winter of 1919 my brother Joe had married Geneva and they came to live with us. That was a big treat because mother was a notoriously poor baker. She hardly ever baked anything except an occasional Italian panatoni at Christmas time. But when Geneva came, she started making cakes and pies and boy, she was really a hero around our place — particularly for Charley and me. We liked the sweet stuff.

Charley and I started Grammar School at Manchester. From the ranch there on Alder Creek we would walk about two or three miles every morning and return in the evening. At that time Manchester Grammar School had two teachers, one for grades 1-4 and one for 5-8 where Charley and I were in the fifth grade. We completed all four grades there. Our first year we had a teacher who wasn’t particularly effective, as I recall. But she was succeeded by Mrs. Morse who was an excellent teacher. This wonderful elderly lady drove a Model T Ford and was responsible for my interest in history and in getting me to write and spell accurately.

We participated in a lot of escapades there. At Halloween we’d take down gates. One night we took a buggy apart and re-assembled it on the roof. The next day people couldn’t figure out how that buggy got up there. We had informal rodeos on the school grounds. One of the students used to ride an old horse that we somehow induced to buck. Then the other kids would take turns to see who could stay on the longest. Fortunately none of us ever got injured.

Sometimes we’d sneak out during the noon hour to go skinny dipping down in Brush Creek. Several times we got back late and were told to assume the angle. The teacher applied the ruler to our butts. It didn’t affect us much, but it did sting a little.

We didn’t have much money in those days, so I started trapping. I had a trap line along the banks of Alder Creek. I caught a number of skunks, raccoons and a fox or two. I would skin them and send the skins to H. Liebs & Co. in St. Louis. They’d send me checks based on what I sent them. I got enough money to buy several baseball bats, a first-baseman’s mitt, a fielder’s mitt and two or three baseballs, which cost about $3 each, a lot of money in those days. Whenever it rained or looked like it was going to rain Charley and I didn’t have to work in the fields. We’d go up behind the barn and take turns pitching and catching. We had a lot of fun. Charley was a left-hander. He could throw a pretty good curve ball. I was a right-hander but I wasn’t very athletic then; I was kind of awkward. When I got to high school I got a little better coordinated and got on the basketball team as a freshman and played every year. It was the same in baseball. Of course the competition wasn’t very strong — we only had about 12 or 13 boys go out for baseball, so almost everybody who went out made the team. We played all the coast teams and Anderson Valley within our league.

We also made our own wine. We had a tank that held 200-300 gallons. My father took the horse-drawn wagon to Cloverdale and bought zinfandel grapes. We dumped the boxes into the big milk tank and the family would get down in there and traipse around crushing the grapes. Later we finally got a hand-cranked crusher. That was quite sophisticated. After the wine was fermented the pomace was drawn off. We dumped the pomace into a makeshift still made out of a ten-gallon milk can rigged up so we could put it on the stove. The lid was tapped with a lead coil which took the steam off and condensed it. That was what Italians called grappa. It was pretty strong stuff. We weren’t aware that by using a lead pipe we were endangering our health. Of course a person didn’t want to drink too much of that stuff, anyway, because it was mighty, mighty strong.

I started high school while we were at the Janigan Ranch in 1924. I got up about five o’clock in the morning, milked seven or eight cows, had breakfast, and walked down to the road and took the bus to high school. I’d leave school about four and get home by about five and then out to the barn again to do the chores and the milking, then dinner and whatever homework we had, which wasn’t very much.

Nearly every town on the Coast had a town baseball team — Point Arena, Albion, Elk, Fort Bragg, Caspar, Navarro — that played every Sunday. Charley and I liked to go see those ball games. We had a buggy and a good trotting horse named Topsy. Many times the games would end late and we’d tap Topsy on the rump and boy — she would take off down Windy Hollow Road with her tail blowing in the wind! We were trying to get home in time to do the milking and not get scolded.

Charley and I both graduated in 1922. We did a little graduation play, and I was the valedictorian. I gave a speech, but I don’t remember what I talked about. Mrs. Morse said I should do it.

By the time our lease was up at the Alder Creek ranch in 1924 Dad had bought what was then known as the Janigen Ranch. John and a hired man took some of the cattle and went out there for a couple of years. I stayed home and worked on the ranch with Charley. Neither Charley nor I were supposed to go to high school, but sometime after graduating from grammar school I contracted severe tonsillitis and some other disease. I was quite ill for three or four months. I wound up in Lane Hospital in San Francisco, Stanford University’s medical school, for several weeks. They treated me and I recovered unusually well.

I wasn’t too strong in those days so Father decided that I should go to school and try to take on a life that wasn’t quite so hard. Mr. Foote, the farm advisor, talked to me about UC Davis. He was instrumental in getting agriculture into the curriculum at Point Arena High School. The first ag teacher there was named George Stanley. He and Ted Liefrink, the second ag teacher, also interested me in going to UC Davis.

I graduated from high school in 1928 and went to UC Davis majoring in Dairy Industry that fall.

While I was at Davis I met a fellow student named Herb Sprague. He lived in Fulton and had a Model T Ford. When we went home for Thanksgiving and Christmas he let me drive it on up to Point Arena and I certainly appreciated that. It was an older Model T, and the lights were provided with electricity from the magneto. That was before cars had storage batteries. By 1930 those magneto lights were being phased out and you couldn’t buy bulbs anymore for magneto lights.

There was another student by the name of George Haliday from the Coast who came home with me sometimes. One night the bulbs in Herb’s Model T went out and we couldn’t get new ones. We had to take turns — one driving, one out front with a flashlight, all the way from Jenner to Point Arena. It was kind of scary sometimes in those steep ravines where there was no moonlight. But we made it and there was no big problem with that.

One summer when I came home I worked at the local creamery in Manchester and I got $25 a week for six days work, eight to twelve hours a day making cheese and butter. I drove the truck to deliver the butter to the ship in Point Arena. The old Seafoam came in there every Friday night and unloaded. Then Saturday morning it would load up with passengers, local produce, etc., and go back to San Francisco. At that time they would take eight or ten passengers and you could go overnight to San Francisco and back for $5.

My father, my brother Charley, a hired man and I spent most of our time plowing, planting hay and getting it in, making firewood, clearing brush, feeding and caring for the cows and horses… It was work, work, work all the time. On my 19th birthday I remember being out in the field all by myself with a big hoe chopping down thistles and I started feeling pretty miserable. I thought, Gee, what a lousy way to celebrate my birthday. But that’s the way it was in those days. Birthdays came and went and it was just another day of work. It wasn’t a lot of excitement.

But we did have some excitement. We’d go to the movies on Saturday night. Every week Father and Mother went to the Druids Lodge. That was a festive occasion. We’d get bundled up and get in the horse and buggy wagon. My brother John would drive and we’d go to Point Arena and go to the movie. It cost 5¢. They had popcorn and peanuts and a player piano. At that time the movies were run one reel at a time. Between reels they would turn the lights on and put a new reel in. Usually there were four reels, and most of them were kind of a cliffhanger. We would be invited back the next week to see if the train was really going to run over the little girl on the railroad track.

After I started at UC Davis, I came back to the coast every summer during college to help on the ranch. The last year I lived on the Coast was 1928. In 1985 we moved back to Irish Beach, only a couple miles north of Alder Creek, after more than 50 years in the Dairy business (with four years in the Navy during World War II).

(Eugene Scaramella died on December 31, 1999. Excerpted from audio tapes recorded in 1997.)

One Response to Growing Up On The Mendocino Coast

  1. Riverrat Reply

    September 14, 2016 at 9:53 am

    Most of South Coast were Dairies(Italians) and peas during this time up until the 50’s. I remember buying a bred Suffolk ewe from Eva Pardini in 1946 and Mr. Foote was still the County Farm advisor then. Great times

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